Car Talk Q&A with Mark Jones
Mark Jones oversees the business end of Car Talk Vehicle Donation Services. Car Talk -- and our stations and donors -- are fortunate to have one of the leading experts in the field of vehicle donation behind our program.
 
What’s the best time of year to donate your car? How can donors and stations assure they’ll get the best possible price for a car? What are the biggest misconceptions on the part of both stations and donors? Car Talk recently sat down and chatted with Mark about those and other topics. 
 
 
Car Talk: What's the latest on vehicle pricing?
 
Mark: That story is interesting. Used-car prices peaked in the middle of 2011. They’re still quite strong, but are trending slightly downward. The price we get for older cars that get recycled is heavily tied to steel demand in China, which has been softening.
 


Car Talk: How do you know all this?
 
Mark: I follow a number of online indexes from the wholesale auto auction companies. If you want to get the best possible price for a used car, you need to fully understand the market.
 
Car Talk: Why are prices good right now?
 
Mark: It’s all due to the credit crunch. When it’s hard to get financing for a new car, consumers tend to dip down into the used-car market. That’s what’s going on right now. So, as a result, the demand for used cars is high. It’s starting to soften just a bit now, as the credit market improves slightly and manufacturers begin to offer discounts and incentives for new car purchases.
 
Car Talk: Can you give us a sense of the scale you’re talking about?
 
Mark: Well, during the worst of the recession, new car sales fell to a rate of about 10 million vehicles per year. That compares to 16 to17 million cars sold during 2005. This year, the U.S. is on track to sell about 14 million new cars.

Used car prices are tied to multiple economic factors, including the credit crunch in the USA and steel demand in China.
 
Car Talk: Where do you see pricing going in the months ahead?
 
Mark: I would expect them to stay about where they are now. The larger economic factors just aren’t going to be changing dramatically. 
 
Car Talk: What does that mean for donors and their NPR stations?
 
Mark: It’s a good time to donate, with stations getting a relatively strong sale price, and donors getting a solid tax deduction. That should stay true for a while. 
 
Car Talk: Is there a better time of year to be donating, to get the best possible price for the station?
 
Mark: To be honest, we don’t see a lot of seasonality to used car prices. Spring and fall are perhaps slightly better than the rest of the year, but it’s not a remarkable difference.
 
Car Talk: A few years ago, we heard a lot about how Congress was threatening the tax deduction for vehicle donations. What's the latest on that situation?
 
Mark: We’re through those changes, and the industry is in good shape. 
 
In 2005, Congress passed a law that eliminated some of the abuses in the system. Donors were allowed to deduct whatever they personally thought their car was worth--not the actual sale price. Now, the deduction is the actual sale price. 
 
Car Talk: Are there things that a donor can do to his or her vehicle, to help assure the best possible sale price?
 
Mark: Absolutely! If at all possible, have the car running at the time we pick it up. While we take cars that are not running, it’s better if they are.
 
Here’s why. Wholesale buyers don’t have time to do a detailed inspection of the car. If it’s not running, they assume there’s something seriously wrong with it. So, the offering price will be low. 
 
Car Talk: What’s the difference to the donor and the station, in a case like that?
 
Mark: Simply doing something like changing the battery or getting a small repair done, could be worth as much as $300 in terms of what you can save on your taxes, thanks to a much better sale price. And, of course, it means much more money to the station.
 
Car Talk: What about the flip side? What if a donor has a car that’s not running but, for example, just got new tires or a new alternator?
 
Mark: There’s not much any vehicle donation program can do in those situations. Anyone who tells you otherwise isn’t being frank. We’re all in the business of selling cars, not individual parts. The buyer looks at the overall condition of the vehicle. 
 
Let me put it this way: When was the last time you bought used tires?
 
Car Talk: Got it! Is it worth detailing your car before it gets picked up?
 
Mark: It’s always nice to have a car looking its best but I would not spend much time or money on fancy detailing. Unlike a direct sale of a used car, cleanliness is not a major factor in the final sale price.

No need to detail your car, but don't forget the Cheezits!
(Flickr photo by Bugsy Sailor)
 
Car Talk: What's the single biggest misconception that donors have about vehicle donation?
 
Mark: That their car is going to sell for “blue book” value. 
 
Remember the last time you traded in a car to the dealer? They probably gave you half of what you expected. We all tend to see the highest number--the so-called “private party” sale price, if I were selling my car to someone else in my town. And, we all tend to rate the condition of our car as better than it truly is. 
 
Car Talk: An NPR listener would never do that!
 
Mark: And all our children are above average, too, just like Lake Wobegon, right?
 
It makes sense. We each have a personal connection to our cars, so we tend to overvalue then. I have a 1996 Volvo 850 that’s very “dog friendly”! I’d like to think it’s worth a thousand or two, but I probably couldn’t get $500 for it from a high-school student.

Mark's 1996 Volvo Dogmobile might not be worth as much as he thinks it is, but don't tell Rocco...he's happy in the backseat.
 
Car Talk: And for our stations out there--what's the single biggest misconception they have?
 
Mark: That just promoting their vehicle donation program a few times on-air is enough. That’s just a launching point. The stations that are really engaging their listeners and raising money are doing lots more and following some simple “best practices.”
 
Car Talk: What’s an example?
 
Mark: Well, take our friends at WYPR in Baltimore. They’ve come up with some great ways to promote vehicle donation--in the newsletters, program guides, e-mail blasts, rotating it on their homepage, and doing it on an on-going basis, not just as a one-time event.
 
Having one person responsible for vehicle donation at the station is an important first step in this process. Stations should contact our Business Development Manager, Twyla Olson for more information. 
 
Car Talk: When you're not talking vehicle donation, what do you enjoy doing?
 
Mark: I love to ski and play squash, and like to spend time with my kids. If they’ll be seen in public spending time with me, that is.

Mark's kids might have agreed to be seen with him in public, but did they agree to be photographed?
 
Car Talk: Anything else we missed?
 
Mark: Yes! I do believe there is a real difference between vehicle donation programs. Both stations and donors should ask tough questions--and keep asking them, until they’re satisfied.
 
Car Talk: Thanks for your time, Mark! If donors or stations can't find the info they need, can they contact you for more info?
 
Mark: It would be my pleasure. Drop me a note anytime. You can reach me here, or give a call at (510) 412-2140. I love talking with stations and donors about vehicle donation. Should I be embarrassed to admit that?  Does that make me a vehicle donation nerd?
 
Car Talk: No comment. But thanks for all you do for both stations and their listeners.
 
Mark: As I thought. And you’re very welcome!